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Home arrow Archives   The American Surveyor     

Standing the Test of Time—John Keating and Topographic, Inc. Print E-mail
Written by Marc Cheves, PS   
Friday, 08 June 2012

A 1.083Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Most surveyors have at least one person they can credit with giving them their start in surveying. When John Keating opened Topographic Engineering in 1958 he hired high school kids to help perform the field work. Beginning in 1963, I was one of those kids who worked for the company part-time. Eight years later, in 1971, Topographic had a job waiting for me when I got home from the Army following my stint as an artillery surveyor in Germany. One of the first projects I was assigned to was in Tyler, Texas. I groaned to John about having to go out of town after having been "out of town" so to speak for the past three years. John replied, "Marc, in surveying, you have to go where the work is." I never forgot that, and I've repeated that many times to surveyors who worked for me when they didn't want to work out of town. Young guys like me who worked for John over the years also learned the importance of honesty, dependability and morality (see his sidebar on page 12). It therefore brings me great pleasure to share with our readers John's story and his biography, Beyond Metes and Bounds--The Life of John Keating.

John grew up in Loveland, Colorado, and following successful stretch as an officer in the Office of Naval Intelligence in WWII, he made his way to Oklahoma City. There he worked for a company that determined drilling platform elevations. He soon recognized that more services could be offered to the oil companies, so on a shoestring budget he innovated the use of aerial photography and the gathering of additional useful information. Well locations were often performed by either county surveyors or the drilling companies themselves. John knew he could be more efficient, and began offering turnkey services through his new company.

In the 1990s, in response to the Oklahoma Board of Registration's insistence, the company voluntarily dropped "Engineering" from its name since its services were tied more to surveying and mapping. It created a raft of subsidiaries, and officially split into surveying and mapping/GIS divisions. Today, Topographic Land Surveyors has offices in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, with corporate headquarters remaining in Oklahoma City. They will go wherever the work is, sending crews from the nearest office. If a project is large enough, the company will open a temporary field office nearby. The company works daily in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Kansas. Along the way, the company has been responsible for staking more than 200,000 well locations and 75,000 miles of pipeline.

Several family members work for the company, including two of John's sons, Robert and Bill. Bill manages the office in Midland, Texas and has for many years. Robert came in 1978 and is CEO of Topographic Inc, and has been heavily involved in the company's move into GIS. In response to oil company requests for better ownership maps, the company became involved in GIS back when it was called AM/ FM. According to Robert, what drove the need for enhanced mapping services was accuracy. In the early years, if an oil company wanted a well in the center of the NE/4, the surveyors would measure 1320 down the section line and then 1320 out to the center of the quarter. But often well locations are sited based on seismic exploration lines, which are based on GPS. The oil company base maps did not match reality. The land grid maps, based on deed descriptions, contained errors (more so for the metes and bounds descriptions in Texas than for the PLSS states such as Oklahoma). Sometimes, the well locations were staked hundreds to thousands of feet from where the geologists wanted them. When wells are staked by coordinates, the coordinate point is located on the ground and only then does Topographic tell the oil company where the well is with respect to the property lines.

In response to the cyclical nature of the oil and gas industry that ebbs and flows according to the price of oil, politics and environmentalism, Topographic stabilized its footing by branching into other disciplines, including power lines and windfarms. Today, while they don't do subdivision platting, they do ALTA surveys and work for a select group of real estate developers. In 2007, the company had 85 employees. Now, it has more than 300, with a hundred of them hired just since January 1 of this year.

Susan Blueher is in charge of the field crews for Topographic Land Surveyors of Oklahoma. Although not a licensed surveyor, Susan is a good manager with a history of starting at entry level positions and working her way up. Previous experience includes early years as a hospital candy-striper that led to being the charge nurse for as many as 18 nursing home employees. In another medical research job she started at the bottom and ended up in upper management. Her focus from the field of health care switched in 1987 when she sought a change of pace and answered a blind ad in the newspaper for a receptionist position at Topographic. After only six weeks, she tried out in the survey department where she talked to clients and scheduled the daily work. Once again her talents were demonstrated, and Susan ended up as President of the Oklahoma surveying group.

During my visit, Susan was managing crews in Oklahoma and Arkansas. She reminisced about how technology had changed procedures over the years. Now, the far-flung field crews e-mail the day's work and plats are quickly processed. Oil patch surveyors have long been familiar with a unique trucking line called Beaver Express than can have anything anywhere in the state by 6AM the next morning. Between the Internet and extreme overnight for hard copy info, the company is able to fulfill several of Topographic's prime requirements, resulting in extraordinary service. Once in the office, the digital info benefits from Topographic's server expertise and, using Eagle Point and AutoCAD, speedily serves their clients. Seems like the mantra of the oil and gas industry has always been "We don't care how much it costs, we want it yesterday."

John Keating and the company he created is a shining example of seeing a need and filling it. He has a sterling reputation among all the people whose lives he has touched. Back in 1963, little did John or I realize the impact he would have on my life. I still fondly recall him picking me up at my house in Oklahoma City after school and heading northwest to stake a well location, often driving home in the dark. During those many hours, he talked to me about life, religion, politics and more. These have been lessons that have stuck with me for my entire life.

John recently celebrated his 90th birthday. He still comes to the office, and most recently has kept busy with digitizing Topographic's vast records. He's already worn out one scanner and is working his way back to the year 2000. All the records still exist, so anything before that is still retrievable. Several employees have been with the company for more than 40 years, and some have even left and come back. If you want to read an inspiring story about entrepreneurialism, dealing with the ups and downs of the economy, but remaining focused, I highly recommend picking up a copy of the book, Beyond Metes and Bounds--The Life of John Keating, which can be purchased online from amazon. com or barnesandnoble.com.

Marc Cheves is Editor of the magazine.

The Keys to Success

Following up with Robert, I learned about the things that have been important to the company's success. According to Robert, "It's not really one thing. It's all these things working together. If you take any one of them out, we're not employing as many people and not doing as much work." The company has two main groups: the Texas group (Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico, etc.) and Oklahoma. They both do well and operate separately. Within Texas we have a pipeline group and a traditional work group. Robert lists the following as "keys" to Topographic's success:

Our people
We have good people, many who've worked for Topographic a long time. In Texas, we've hired a number of graduates from Texas A&M Corpus Christi (including my son-in-law). They have become SITs. Three have recently become RPLSs. They have become Survey Techs and Project Managers for us. We have good managers. We go where the work is. We've learned to work with "mobile" employees. It's taken a while to adapt to that. As for defining mobile employees: These employees are often called "contractors" in the industry. They aren't really "contractors" as defined by the IRS, but they have made the decision that they don't need to go home very often.

Following in the tradition of our founder, we try to use the latest technology. We don't necessarily want to be on "the bleeding edge". We let our customers lead us in this regard. Our technology efforts include field, drafting, Blue Sky, Landscape, TEI, networks and security, and administration. Blue Sky is alignment sheet generating software. It is very difficult to learn and use, but some of our clients require us to deliver their projects to them in Blue Sky format. On some projects we use Blue Sky to generate alignment sheets just because it saves us time. It depends on the project. LandScape is an online GIS that Topographic Mapping Company has developed and is continuing to improve. It allows us to update our client's work daily by posting it to LandScape where clients can log on, see the progress of their project, and have access to plats and documents relating to the project. The "Client Login" is through the Topographic home page. TEI stands for Topographic Equipment Inventory system. This is a program we've developed and implemented in the past year, and it came just in time. We have a database of our high-dollar gear (GPS receivers, data collectors, radios, pipe locators, pin finders mostly), and we put a QR code sticker on each piece of equipment. QR codes are the square scan codes you see on a lot of things now. We require that equipment be scanned once a week. The scanning is done with iPhones. We give each Party Chief an iPhone. We have a TEI app that we've developed to do the scanning. If scanning isn't done within the required seven-day time period, the Party Chief will automatically get an email reminding him to do it. At ten days the Party Chief's supervisor gets an email about the equipment not being scanned. When the equipment is scanned we get GPS coordinates with the scan data. So, at least once a week we know where our equipment is and who has it. Also, I can run reports on "lost equipment" at any time. This program helps me sleep at night.

Human Resources
We couldn't have taken on the projects we've worked on without HR and the streamlining of hiring procedures. HR also administers drug testing, valid driving licenses, and the meeting of insurance requirement. HR has reduced tensions within the management at Topographic.

We've had to ramp up our safety efforts. We've had a consultant for several years who puts on the required classes. Last year we added a Topographic employee to help. The consultant wasn't enough. Our clients require this.

Our clients require certain levels of insurance. We've just had to bite the bullet and get it.

Web site
We have to reflect competence, experience, and significance. Potential clients, potential new hires, vendors and others will check out our web site. We may not win advertising awards with our site, but it does what it needs to do for us. We are continually trying to upgrade and improve it. All the web site development and video is done in house. (Editor's note: I can attest to the video capability. On the website is a video of me and John chatting about the old days.)

To gear up as we have, it takes some funding. We've been around long enough and we've been cautious enough to be able to fund our growth internally (mostly). We have a credit line at the bank that we work at maintaining but use sparingly. We work hard at being profitable. We couldn't be funding growth and losing money at the same time. The biggest funding requirement is accounts receivable. The companies we work for are notorious for not paying their bills on time. We accept this. We generally get paid. It just takes a while.

Bonus plan
When we make money, we share the profits with our employees. This is an important piece of the puzzle for us. Our employees are going to work a little harder than our competition's employees to get a new client or to keep an existing client. They know that it shows up in their paycheck. We have a defined system for calculating profitability and how much gets paid out in bonuses. The bonuses are significant and get people's attention.

Things I've Learned and Observations I've Made

by John Keating
• I have been the recipient of God's guidance and judgment throughout my career. Looking back on it, I realize that I had guidance in reaching critical decisions in my life and my business.
• My greatest accomplishment has been to raise, with my wife Barbara's love and support, a family of bright and healthy children each one of them with his/her spouse a contributor to the American legacy.
• Early in my career as a surveyor for the energy industry I learned that this is a competitive enterprise. There are many capable surveyors. To be successful I must offer more useable data (available US government photography, Oklahoma county road maps, etc.) and I had to assure prompt action, responsible field work and deliver a top-quality map of the survey as quickly as possible.
• A good plat/drawing of a survey can cover up a sloppy set of field notes, and conversely a sloppy or second-rate drawing can obliterate a top-quality field survey.
• Employees with the highest academic achievements are not necessarily the most qualified. The desire to learn, to achieve, to excel, and to accommodate are most essential.
• To be successful don't strive to be "ordinary." Be alert, work harder than the "ordinary" and be eager to take responsibility. You will be singled out as extraordinary.
• Do not expect "the system" to take care of you--the government, Social Security, union membership, or the courts. All those entities may help, but ultimately your welfare will be determined by your own effort and judgment.
• Be "street smart." Become wise and knowledgeable about things that are not taught in school--how to judge people, how to best use your time and money, which risks to take and which to leave alone, and how to react to a real-life situation.
• Do not get yourself into a compromising position. Do not allow yourself to be maneuvered into a situation where someone can take advantage of you and you have lost the ability to escape unscathed.
• Do not get financially overextended with bank loans and credit card debt. The more debt, the higher the interest payment, and more difficult, or impossible, it becomes to recover.
• I learned early in my career that it was easy for me to find ways to spend the money I'd earned, but my most gratifying feeling came when I could use money I had struggled to save to pay cash for purchases and eliminate the interest charge.
• Maintain good health. Eat healthy and exercise moderately. You will live a longer and happier life.
• Good music is a great relaxer.
• Get up when you fall down. All of us have fallen down. Do not let a failure or multiple failures ruin your life or cloud your future. Success comes with perseverance.
• Remain flexible in your attitudes and objectives. We are in an ever-changing world. Do not resist change. Opportunities come to those who seek and prepare for them.
• Most of all, be respectful and kind. Spiritual guidance is available to those who ask.

A 1.083Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

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